The last time I visited Steve, back in January 2020, the subject of food came up (as it often does). Visitors can bring up to $25 (in change only) so they can buy their loved ones something to eat from the vending machines in the visiting area. I’m sure the prison system gets part of the profit from the sales. I know that the school I used to teach at got a share of the vending machine sales in the cafeteria. Almost everything in the inmates’ vending machines is snack food.
I based a short story on the experience of visiting Steve, and how that always entailed food. It’s called “99 Miles for a Snickers and a Dr Pepper,” because (for a while) that’s what I started each visit with, a Dr Pepper and a Snickers bar for each of us.
[No, there isn’t supposed to be a period after the Dr in the name of the drink. Here’s why.]
Usually, after we talk for a while (my visits are limited to two hours because I live less than 300 miles away), I would head to the machines at the back of the room to get him something else while he has to wait at the table (he can’t get up and move around). None of vended food is especially nutritious. Then, a few years ago, Steve was diagnosed with diabetes. He’s still able to maintain a good blood sugar level without taking insulin shots by managing a careful diet, medication, and exercise. These days, I don’t get him Snickers, but get him something like packaged sausages, some trail mix, or chips. Most of it still isn’t very good for him, but I can’t see the prisons installing anything nutritious. It wouldn’t sell.
Under normal circumstances, the inmates get three meals a day, in groups. Their pod (the dorm they’re in) or their cell block is called one at a time for chow. They make their way from there to the chow hall where they wait in lines for a group to clear the hall, then they are locked inside for about fifteen minutes to eat their heavily starched, fat-laden, but hot meal before they line up against the opposite wall and wait until they’re shuffled out to be replaced by the next group.
There are times during the year when inmates are kept from the chow hall because there aren’t enough staff that day (or for other reasons, like a virus outbreak, for example). When that happens, inmates are given Johnnies. A Johnny is a small sack lunch which has something like a peanut butter sandwich (unless the inmate is allergic), occasionally with a banana (if some have been donated), and an apple or an orange at Christmas and Thanksgiving. While it can vary slightly (sometimes the peanut butter is rolled in a tortilla, sometimes it might be bologna) it’s never enough nutrition to sustain adults. The stretches when inmates are served only three Johnnies a day (or sometimes two Johnnies and one hot meal) can continue for weeks. Inmates often resort to creating their own meals from a variety of items they’ve purchased at the prison’s commissary, but that’s a post for another day.
The prepared prison food probably does vary from one unit to another, but if any of them ever want to be considered the best, they would have to improve a lot to top Alcatraz.
The inmates who were housed on the island in the San Francisco Bay ate things like “chili dogs, butter drenched potatoes, fried pork chops, biscuits and gravy, banana pudding,” and a breakfast of “cereal, eggs, fruit, and toast.” This Bon Appetit article covers the story behind Alcatraz’ meals, but the menu below will give you a better idea of the range of food they were served.
Do you have any prison food stories? Comment about them below.
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